It would be quiet natural to think that breathing is a perfectly natural activity and that no one needs to be taught how to breath. The sad truth is that only very young babies breath correctly, and most adults have lost the art of correct breathing.
Breathing has profound effects on neuromuscular function and mental states.
Asian Martial Art systems clearly understood the importance of correct breathing. In addition to the influence breathing has on maintaining a relaxed state of mind and body in action (essential for the generation of speed and power), they saw the breath as the bridge between the mind and the body, and correct breathing as the means to harmonize the mind and body in rest and in action.
Correct breathing will (a) relax the body and mind (b) help ‘center’ and ‘ground’ the body, (c) helps the mind to focus and direct energy, and (d) helps to calm and ‘empty ‘the mind.
Breathing and relaxation are intimately related. If you breathe calmly and regularly you will relax, and if you relax your breathing will become calm and regular. It is impossible to relax deeply if you hold your breath or breathe in an erratic fashion. If you relax your body you relax your mind, and if you relax your mind you relax your body, and the best way to do this is to relax and regulate your breathing!
Keeping your mind and body relaxed in action when you are under pressure (during any sporting activity) is not easy. However, by training to relax and regulate the breath it is possible to maintain a relaxed state of body and mind in action. This will take a considerable amount of training.
This is an idea that all advanced Asian Martial Artists are familiar with. Put simply ‘centering’ means moving you consciousness from your head and chest down to the center of body (in the middle of your pelvis). ‘Grounding’ refers to the process of allowing your energy and body weight to relax and move downwards to the ground, strengthening your connection with the ground. The best way to ‘center’ and ‘ground’ yourself is to focus on calm and regulated abdominal breathing.
In order to get a feeling for this concept of ‘centering’ and ‘grounding’ try this experiment with a partner; Stand with your feet about shoulder width apart and with your knees a little bent. Get your partner to stand to one side of you and place one or both of his/her hands on the side of your shoulder. Your task is to stand firmly, and you partner is going to test the stability of your stance by pushing firmly against your shoulder. It is not a contest of strength! A firm steady push is enough. Now take a breath and hold it as you try to resist your partners push. You will find that your partner will be able to push you quit easily. Next try to resist your partner’s push as you breathe into your chest (expanding and contracting your chest). Again you will notice that you will find it difficult to resist your partner’s push. The same thing will happen if you breathe in an irregular fashion. Finally breathe slowly and calmly into your lower abdomen and notice how relaxed and solid your stance is and how you will be able to easily resist even a heavy push. Also notice that as you start to do abdominal breathing your attention shifts down to lower belly (‘centering’) and your legs relax and you feel your weight sinks down towards the ground (‘grounding’).
As you practice your abdominal breathing, sitting, standing still, or moving, focus on ‘centering ‘and ‘grounding’ until you develop an engram where all this becomes one integrated body-mind process. Then all you will need to do is focus on your breathing and you will automatically ‘center’ and ‘ground’ yourself.
In European training programs strength, speed and power in a sporting action is achieved by doing appropriate exercises to build strength and speed, and by working on technique and mental concentration. In the Asian Martial Arts traditions strength, speed and power in an action is trained only by working on training the minds ability to extend energy to achieve the intension of the action. In other words, no attention is paid to developing muscle strength, power or reaction time, since all these are seen as functions of the mind, or more correctly ‘mind-intention’. The bridge between the mind and the energy of the body is seen as the breath.
Here is an exercise that will demonstrate how mind-intension and extending energy works; this exercise is known as the ‘unbending arm exercise’ and to do it you will need the help of a partner. Standing facing your partner and with your right shoulder lined up with your partners right shoulder and about 60 cm apart. Extend your right arm and place the back of your forearm, close to your wrist, on your partners shoulder with your palm and the hollow of your elbow facing up. Your partner grasps the top of your elbow with both hands, fingers interlaced. The object of the exercise is for you to maintain a straight arm while your partner tries to bend it. First try it with muscle strength. The chances are that your partner will be able to bend your arm. Now try it using your mind, extending your energy and breathing into your abdomen. Relax, ‘center’ and ‘ground’ yourself and start abdominal breathing. Imagine that energy is flowing out of your center, through your arm and out of your fingers. Imagine that the energy flowing through your arm stretches your arm and makes it stiff. Do not tense your muscles. As your partner tries to bend your arm increase the energy flowing through it. If you can keep your mind focused (mind-intention) on extending your energy your partner will not be able to bend your arm. However if you hold your breath, breathe into your chest, or breathe irregularly you will find it hard to extend your energy, and you will fail in your intention of maintaining the ‘unbending arm’.
Besides demonstrating the connection between breathing and your ability to focus your mind this exercise illustrates the fact that true strength and power comes largely from the mind. The stronger your ability to focus your mind the stronger you are, and correct breathing has a lot to do with it. If you ever wondered how Martial Artists do seemingly impossible feats of strength, power and speed the answer lies in their ability to harmonize their minds and bodies through correct breathing and their ability to focus their minds powerfully.
One of the biggest challenges in fencing (or any other sporting activity) is to maintain a calm and focused mind that is not constantly bombarded by thoughts, positive thoughts, negative thoughts or thoughts of cunning strategic plans. Your coach probably constantly admonishing you to “concentrate”,” keep focused”, ”get in the zone” etc. meaning that you should clear your mind of extraneous thoughts and only pay attention to what is happening in the present moment. This is easier said than done. Sports psychologists have come up with many different strategies to deal with this problem.
Over the centuries the Asian Martial Art systems discovered that one of the best ways to ‘empty’ and still the mind was to focus the mind on regulating the breathing. In the Japanese art of fencing the swordsman kept his spirit strong and flowing smoothly by maintaining a state of consciousness called ‘mushin’, a Buddhist concept that translates literally as ‘no mind’. This does not mean ‘not thinking’. Being in a state of ‘mushin’ means the elimination of any thought, or thoughts that are divorced from action. In a state of ‘mushin’ thought and action occur simultaneously. There is an old Samurai saying that says, ”To think is to act”. To prevent extraneous, unwanted thoughts from coming between thought and action the swordsman filled the interval with concentrating on the rhythm of his breathing.
In terms of neurophysiology a state of ‘mushin’ is probably a state of low Alpha brain waves – around 8 to 10 Hz. Research has shown that sportsman performing at their best when they are said to be ‘in the zone’ show brain wave patterns of 8 to 10 Hz. Whatever the case may be experience has shown that the best way to achieve this mental state is through relaxed, calm and regulated abdominal breathing.
By now it should be obvious to the discerning sports-person and coach that correct breathing is of vital importance and time invested in training the breath will bear significant fruit.
Breathing is a natural activity, but correct breathing is by no means natural. It has to be actively and diligently trained until it becomes natural. By correct breathing I mean relaxed and regular abdominal breathing.
Most people breathe by expanding and contracting the ribcage. This creates tension in the abdominal wall, which prevents the diaphragm from dropping down sufficiently resulting in shallow breathing. The resulting lack of air and oxygen is then made-up for by rapid breathing. Thus most people have a breathing cycle of 10 to 15 breaths a minute. When the demand for oxygen increases with an increase in physical activity the breathing cycle becomes more rapid and labored. This labored panting and gasping for breath has disastrous effects on muscle relaxation and calm and focused mental states.
Before we look at how to breathe correctly let as briefly look at mechanics of breathing. Contrary to popular, belief in order to breathe in and out we don’t ‘suck’ air in through our nose or mouth and then ‘blow’ it out. What we call breathing is caused by air pressure dynamics controlled by your diaphragm. When you breathe in your diaphragm-which is a sheet of muscle and connective tissue that separates your thorax from your abdomen- relaxes and drops down, your thoracic- cavity expands causing a drop in air pressure, and atmospheric pressure forces air into your lungs. In order to breathe out your diaphragm contracts and lifts up reducing the volume of your thoracic-cavity and making the pressure greater than atmospheric pressure which causes air to flow out of your body. In other words you breathe in by relaxing your diaphragm and breathe out by contracting your diaphragm.
Your nose of course has little to do with breathing. It is merely a vent into your body through which air flows into your body, albeit a well-designed vent. You breathe by moving your diaphragm. Importantly, notice that the ‘active phase’ of the breath is as you breathe out by contracting your diaphragm. The ‘passive phase’ of the breath is in reality the in-breath when your diaphragm relaxes.
In the West we think of a breathing cycle as breathing in and breathing out (inhale-exhale). In the East a breathing cycle is seen as beginning with an exhalation (breath out-breath in). In other words, the active phase of the breathing cycle-exhalation (diaphragm contracting) comes first followed by the passive phase (diaphragm relaxing) as you inhale.
As I have already mentioned in order for you to inhale your diaphragm needs to relax and drop down. In an inhalation the volume of air inhaled is determined primarily by how much you diaphragm drops down and secondarily by the expansion of the ribcage. In order to facilitate the downward movement of the diaphragm the abdominal cavity needs to expand. This is achieved by relaxing the muscles of the abdominal wall and the lower back. In an exhalation the contraction and the rising of the diaphragm is achieved by the abdominal cavity reducing in volume as the muscles of the abdomen and lower back contract. In other words you breathe by expanding and contracting your abdominal cavity, not by expanding and contracting your chest (any expansion or contraction of your ribcage should be incidental). This is why it is called abdominal breathing.
In order to do abdominal breathing successfully you need to develop good muscle control of the muscles that make- up the abdominal cavity.
In learning abdominal breathing the first skill to learn is how to relax and control the abdominal muscles. In order to do this start by sitting on the edge of a chair seat or bench with your feet flat on the floor and your knees and toes aligned. Keep your head, chest and pelvis aligned and as relaxed as possible. Place your right hand (if you are right handed) on your abdomen between the end of your sternum and your navel. Place your left hand on the middle of your sternum. Start by exhaling and emptying your lungs. As you inhale allow your abdomen to expand and push your right hand forwards and out. Do not allow your sternum to move. If necessary, restrain it with your left hand. Practice until only your right hand moves as you breathe out and in. If you find this difficult at first try pressing your abdomen in with your right hand as you breath out and as you breathe in move your hand away from your abdomen and try to get the front of your abdomen to ‘follow’ your hand. Do not try to breathe too deeply or you will run the risk of hyperventilating.
Once you have got the control of expanding and contracting the front of your abdomen without moving your sternum you are ready for the next stage. Now place both your hands on your abdomen just below your bottom ribs with the tips of your middle fingers touching. As you relax your abdomen and inhale the tips of your middle fingers will move apart. If the gap between them is 2 cm to 3 cm you are doing fine. If not you need to work on relaxing you abdominal muscles more. Do not forget to keep you sternum still as you breathe.
Now that you have got good control of the muscles in the front and sides of your abdominal wall move your hands to the sides of your body, just above your pelvic bones, fingers to the back of your body and pointing towards your spine. Work on getting good movement in the muscles of the side of your body and lower back as you breathe out and in. Finally sit back in the chair so your lower back (kidney area) touches the back of the chair. Now notice that as you relax your lower back and inhale the expansion of your abdominal cavity will push you forwards away from the chair back and as you exhale your body will settle back into the chair.
Use all the above techniques of biofeedback to develop good control of the muscles of the abdominal cavity. In order to increase you muscular control you can practice just moving only one part of you abdominal muscles as you breathe. For example you could place your hands on the sides of your abdomen and only allow the muscles under one hand to move as you breathe. Or place both hands on the front of your abdomen and breath in by only allowing the muscles in the sides and back of your body to move. By working on isolated muscle groups moving you can gain much better control of all the muscles around your abdominal cavity.
Once you have developed muscle control of your abdominal cavity the next thing to do is to work on relaxing the muscles of your ribcage and allowing the whole of your ribcage to expand. Thus as you inhale your abdominal cavity expands first followed by you rib cage. It should feel as if your breath fills your whole trunk, starting from your lower abdomen and filling up to your collarbone. The only parts of your trunk that should not move as you breathe are your spine, your sternum and your shoulders.
Now that you have learned to breathe correctly your next task is to learn to regulate the breath. Regulating the breath means to make your breathing regular, without gaps between the breaths, and breaths of equal volume. The number of breaths per minute could change depending on the circumstances. For example: at rest you may breathe slowly and when you are active you may need to breathe more rapidly. But the volume of the breath and the quality of the breath should always be the same.
There are a number of characteristics of correctly regulated breathing. These are:
(a) Always breathe through your nose.
Your nose was designed for breathing. It is difficult to regulate your breathing if you breathe through your mouth, besides it causes a dry mouth.
(b) The breath should be silent and ‘soft’.
As you breathe out and in you should not be able to hear the breath. If you can there is tension in the tissues around your airways. Your breath should flow in and out silently and softly.
(c) Inhalations and exhalations should be the same length.
(d) The breath should be continuous.
There should be no gaps or pauses between the inhalations and exhalations. This is sometimes called ‘linking the breath’ or ‘tidal breathing’ (the breath flowing in and out like the tide).
(e) The breath should be 80% of maximum lung capacity.
Regardless of wither you are breathing fast or slow your breath should always be 80% of your maximum lung capacity. To try to breath deeper or much shallower creates tension and could lead to hyperventilation.
(f) Breathe slowly at rest and increase the rate of your breathing as you become more active.
Normally as you become more active and your body’s need for oxygen increases your breathing becomes more rapid and deeper to meet this need. Peter Ralston observed, “You should increase you rate of breathing as you become more active and before your bodies need for oxygen forces you to breathe faster. That way you never need to be ‘out of breath.” Panting and gasping for air are certainly not characteristics of regulated breathing.
Practice breathing slowly. If you are able to supply your body’s need for oxygen with fewer breaths it means that your breathing is more efficient. Trained breathers can breathe extremely slowly. Some martial art masters can maintain one breathing cycle a minute (30 second inhalation – 30 second exhalation) during normal activities, and some Buddhist monks and Taoist monks can maintain breathing cycles lasting 3 to 4 minutes. If you can get to a point where you are breathing 3 or 4 breathing cycles a minute during normal daily activities you are doing fine.
Breathing meditation is easy to do. In fact, if you are thinking of learning how to meditate I would recommend breathing meditation – not only do you get all the mental benefits of meditation, you also get all the neurological benefits of breathing correctly.
The basic principle is to get the mind to focus on the breath and “watch” the breath. If thoughts creep in (and they will), just let them go and return to watching the breath. Don’t let the mind verbalize the process of watching. Just tune into what the body feels like as you do abdominal breathing. Focus on the feeling of air flowing into your body and how the muscles of the lower abdomen feels as they move. Notice that there is a still point between exhalation and an inhalation. Even if you are doing tidal breathing there is an instance of no movement. By watching this still point, the mind learns to become still. Eventually, you develop a sense that your whole body is breathing out and in.
You can do this meditation from a sitting position, a standing position, or even lying down. Whichever position you choose, spend some time every day doing some breathing meditation. Even as little as 20 minuets will yield significant results. Think of it as “muscle memory” training for the mind! You will be amazed at what good things will come from this simple practice.